Friday, 17 April 2009

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop

December 1956 saw the first meeting of the BBC’s new Electrophonic Effects Committee to discuss a proposal to set up a studio for the production of electronic sounds and music for use in radio drama. A month later they would realise that the term ‘electrophonic’ had already been taken by the field of audiometrics and soon changed it to Radiophonic. Electrophonic audiometry involves the playing of electronic tones at different frequencies - on an audiometer, a device credited to Bell Labs employee Harvey Fletcher - to test the subject’s hearing. The first time Desmond Briscoe remembered hearing electronic sounds it was coming from an audiometer, performing hearing tests on soldiers during wartime. Briscoe spent most of World War Two in the army educational corps running a course on music appreciation, teaching soldiers how to listen to modern music. In later life, he had a way of saying the words ‘music’ and ‘composer’ precisely as though they were doomed to hide under inverted commas, veiled by a slight ironic distance.

Daphne Oram, it is said, secretly enjoyed the war for the opportunities it provided for women in the typically male world of sound engineering. She had joined the BBC in 1943 in the music department, balancing sound output levels. In the mid-1950s Oram would petition her superiors to open a dedicated electronic music studio, staying late at night at the BBC after everyone had left to push tape machines from different studios together and experiment with electronic sounds and concrète techniques. Seemingly unaffected by the newfound pressures of competition, the music department of the BBC was intent on pursuing its policy of ‘serious’ music. Unfortunately for Oram, the music department’s idea of ‘serious’ seemed to consist largely of ‘opera and ballet.’

To many British people today, when asked about their earliest memories of electronic sounds, they may well think of something produced at the Radiophonic Workshop. Perhaps for the majority (including, most famously, the Queen), they will think of Delia Derbyshire’s theme to Doctor Who. Bill Drummond, formerly of the group, the KLF, remembers it as “like no other piece of music, and it affected me in a way that no other piece of music affected me. It did a whole generation.” In the BBC radio play about the life of Delia Derbyshire, Blue Veils and Golden Sands, electronic composer and musician Pete Kember (of Spaceman 3, Experimental Audio Research and Spectrum), who plays himself, cites a list of contemporary electronic artists in whose music he can hear the influence of Delia’s music from the Workshop: Aphex Twin, Orbital, Add N to (X). MMS, a poster on the Dissensus web forum claims the Workshop’s output is responsible for acclimatising the British public to an otherworldly sound world, “the sonics of abstract electronic music has seeped through British culture as a vast hopeful but irrational spectre,” from groups that might self-consciously reference analogue experimentation, like Stereolab, through to hardcore and rave. Another poster, calling himself Blunt, agrees, adding, "when the means of production began to be opened up to the masses in the late 80s and early 90s, it was British musicians and bedroom producers that blazed the trail” in electronic pop and dance music.

In the years 1957 and ’58, electronic music studios opened in Warsaw, Munich, Stockholm and Eindhoven, some were privately owned by electronics manufacturers like Philips and Siemens (Eindhoven and Munich, respectively) others were part of national broadcast stations, but none were quite like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Due to its institutional position and demanding remit, the Workshop is both inside and outside the history of electronic music, often summarily excluded from books on the subject or dismissed out of hand by commentators and other composers. Nonetheless, the Workshop is, in a certain sense, at the very heart of the development of electronic music, as its obscene core or uncanny double.